Modane to Plampinet Refuge du Mont Thabor – D18 & 19 (FW D5 & D6)

Fun Week Day 5 – Modane to Refuge du Mont Thabor.

This was the shortest day we’ve had so far in terms of distance. Just a shade less than 14km ‘up the hill’ heading south (again, thankfully!) from Modane. Although short it involved an ascent of nearly 1,500m (5,000′). But after the madness of the two (nearly) 30km days we needed the sort of shortish day we had yesterday – 19km downhill mainly – followed by a relaxing short stroll back up to altitude. Dillon’s Hiking the GR5 by Cicerone illustrates what was involved.

Since we were at the Fourneaux end of town it was easier for us to access the GR5 by taking a variant route that essentially started at the Marie, and headed uphill almost immediately and relentlessly. As we were crossing the railway tracks via a footbridge we were joined again by Jean-Christof. I haven’t mentioned him yet. He’s a French hiker in his early 60s, tall with giraffe-like legs that just eat up the distance at a voracious pace. Richard and Geoffrey had got talking to him at the Refuge du Plan du Lac the night before I set off all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to slice 30% off Dillon’s time.

For most of that day Jean-Christof had, according to Richard and Geoffrey, relentlessly caught them up and overtaken them. We hadn’t seen him that night at Le Montana as he’d moved on the next refuge on the trail. But we caught up with him in Modane last night. He’s doing the opposite to us – turning up on spec to refuges and usually finding accommodation. Barring that, he has a small tent to crawly into when there’s no room at the inn. Much more flexible than our arrangement.

Jean-Christof (JC) stands apart from most other hikers. He’s hiked all over the world – Nepal, Pakistan, USA, most of Europe and is on his way down to Nice to complete the GR5. So, he’s one of these folk that have been drawn into our gravitational orbit (Steph the German and Severine the Ninja of the Alps are still out there somewhere).

So, having seen JC in Modane it was hardly surprising that he caught up with us at the railway foot bridge. We were now four, soon to be two. As soon as the gradient got steeper JC and I stepped on the gas and started a quite alarming rate of ascent. I put on a spurt for about ten minutes in the hope of dropping him. But, this was not to be. He kept pace with me and closed the gap. His gait is tremendous, even uphill. I stopped briefly to do a navigation check and he stopped with me. It was clear that he wasn’t racing but just wanted the companionship. So we found a fast rate of ascent that matched us both. An hour had passed and we’d managed a sustained rate of ascent of 552m up a fearsome gradient. It was like Hungary Hill in Aldershot, but it just went on forever. We passed an equally monstrous ant hill which almost came up to JC’s hips.

We were still in thick pine woods when the ascent flattened out and the track reached a bridge near the town of Le Charmaix. ‘I need a coffee’, he announced. So, we pulled off the route and went in search of a cafe. I sent a text to Richard to let him know what we were up to and invited him and Geoffrey to join us. They declined and pushed on.

So, as Geoffrey and Richard slogged on upwards JC and I relaxed over expresso and biscuits, and chatted about all manner of things including Brexit. Much as I’d have loved to spend more time like that it was tine to push on.

We picked up the GR5 very easily, and also picked up another fellow traveller. A blonde girl with a very large pack. I’d seen her loitering outside our hotel the night before. And there she was on the track just ahead of us. The GR5 steepened and it seemed rude to burn past her, so we fell in step with her as she marched on up. Interestingly, she didn’t stop once or alter her rate of ascent. This is the most efficient way of getting uphill without consuming too much energy. In fact, it was a perfect pace for us all. She and JC fell into conversation, which I didn’t really follow as I was fascinated by military casements and barracks from a bygone era that seemed to protect this narrow winding valley.

In fact, we were very close to the Italian border and JC explained that France had grabbed large chunks of territory from Italy at the end of WW2. These quite ghostly military relics were part of that era. As we climbed out of the tree line the views back down the valley opened up into splendid vistas of where we’d been in the previous two days.

But, we weren’t alone. There were plenty of hikers, families and children all tramping up the mountain. The girl’s pace never varied and we eventually overtook everyone. Just then I spotted to guys up ahead in pirate hats. ‘Fe, fo, fi, fum, I smell the blood of Englishmen.’ Up ahead, by some three-hundred metres, were Richard and Geoffrey. They have these big floppy hats that make them look like extras from Pirates of the Caribbean. Geoffrey’s in particular is worn at a rakish angle. Only Englishmen could possibly dress so absurdly and yet pull it off with eccentric aplomb. Very Raj!

Gradually, we bore up on them, but they spotted us before we could surprise them. And then we were five. Geoffrey speaks excellent unabashed French and quickly ascertained that the girl’s name was Merika and she’d done a day’s military training that is now offered to all youngsters in France, and was the only qualified mountain guide in her town.

We were now quite high up and could see the refuge at the foot of Mount Thabor. The cover of Dillon’s book has exactly this picture – a lone hiker making his way towards the mountain and, presumably, the refuge. We were keen to find the exact spot from which the photo had been taken and recreate it.

After quite a lot of posing for photos we pushed on up to the Refuge du Mont. Thabor. At 2,502m it’s the highest refuge that we’ve stayed at so far. Surrounded by spectacular mountains, glacial moraine and a stunning lake, the refuge was evidently very popular with day-trippers and hikers alike. But, no room at the inn for either JC or Merika who hadn’t booked ahead. So, after a quick bite they both pushed off to the next refuge. No doubt we’ll see them again. They’ll re-emerge throughly the rent in the time-space continuum that we reckon we have created around us. Rather like those predators in the Arnie movies that suddenly appear, people who come into contact with us seem to vanish and reappear mysteriously.

We have this theory that people we’ve met along the route, like an Australian couple at the Refuge de Chesery in the early days, disappear in warp we create around ourselves. Certainly, they were never seen again. One minute they were behind us, and then gone, never to be seen again. Very odd. We think that German Steph and the Ninja of the Alps also move through this wormhole we’ve created.

The refuge is probably the most extraordinary we’ve been to. A slightly crazy mix of French, Italians, Australians and some eccentric English people in odd hats. I mean, where else can you play boule at 2,500m with such spectacular views?

And on that note. I think it’s time for a beer. But, before I do, I’d just like to announce that your donations have now easily exceeded £8,000 for Children With Cancer. Ideal! Thanks for your continued support for this very worthwhile charity that does such vital work.

Merci beacoup!

Fun Week Day 6 – Refuge du Mont. Thabor to Plampinet

Supper at the refuge was a crowded but well organised affair. Pea soup, a kind of bean and tofu goulashy stew that looked like bolognese but wasn’t followed up by a hunk of Savoyard cheese. One bowl for all three courses and the same spoon saved on the washing up. But, to be fair, the three guys running the hut were catering for up to 50 people including those in tents outside. They also did a pretty good beer, an IPA which they insisted on calling an APA.

The sleeping was very cramped. The most cramped to date, making the bunking arrangements at the Refuge d’Entre Le Lac seem spacious. This was the Alpine equivalent of the Black Hole of Calcutta. I was on a top bunk, Richard below and Geoffrey below on a neighbouring one. Although the temperature outside had fallen dramatically, in the Black Hole it steadily rose, as did the smell and CO2 level as the night progressed. I woke at 1.30am to grunting and snoring and a stale foul smell (the hut had no showers, by the way, so everyone was honking). I didn’t wait for my alarm to go at 6am but grabbed all my stuff and left the hole for the boot room where I packed ready to go after breakfast.

The French don’t believe in gargantuan proportions – the cereal bowls were no larger than a very small ashtray. I’ve got quite used to bread, jam and coffee for breakfast. It seems adequate.

The weather was a bit iffy. No bright blue sky. Instead, low dark scudding clouds and the possible threat of rain. This didn’t impact our dress code one bit. We wore the same stuff we’d worn for the past three weeks. The French by contrast don all available warm and waterproof clothing at the hint of rain. To us a storm is thunder and lightening and high winds. To the French, and other Europeans, seemingly, a storm is anything that isn’t bright sunshine. But, we’ve been hardened up in bleak places like Sennybridge, the Brecon Beacons, Dartmoor, the Lake District (where the summer is measured in days rather than months), the Peak District, the Pennines, the North York Moors…and that’s before we start talking about what goes on north of Hadrian’s wall.

So, off we set in our T shirts and shorts and off set everyone else dressed for the assault on the North Face. Predictably, the weather lightened and within half an hour we noticed them all stop and start stripping off. Not a single drop of rain fell this morning.

We were heading for Plampinet, a small hamlet half-way to Briançon, mainly downhill. Dillon rates it as a fairly easy day’s hiking of about 21km in Hiking the GR5 by Cicerone:

Within half an hour we’d reached the Col de la Vallée Étroite, where a very large cross marks the southern boundary of Savoie and what used to delineate the frontier between Italy and France in mid 20th century. JC was right, the French had acquired these territories, particularly the valley we were trekking through, at the end of the Second World War.

Beyond the cross the the sky was clear and blue and an almost prehistoric vista of jagged peaks disappearing into the distance reminded me that this could have been the inspiration for JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. One mountain in particular, tall and sharp like at witch’s hat, looked like Mordor – Sauron’s mountain. Or perhaps it was Smaug’s lair, or was teeming with Orcs. At this point Richard’s asking me what narcotics I’ve been taking and expressing some concern that when we rendezvous with Godfrey and Phil in five day’s time in Ceillac the madness may have become irreversible. But, the landscape we descended through really did look quite oddly other worldly.

The going was easy and all downhill except for a half-hour ascent of about 300m to get up to a high lake in a completely open grassy plain, where we stopped to fire up the Jetboil for the second time this trip. At least Geoffrey appreciated a brew. Richard stuck to his Thermos.

Tatiana decided to do some rock climbing while we were brewing up by the lake.

The remainder of the hike was all downhill along a steepish zig-zagging track through yet more pine trees. We passed several mountain bikers pushing their bikes up the mountain over the rough rocky path. They had a very long way to go to the top and no chance at all of actually pedalling any of the way. Why bother?

We emerged into a small town called Névache where we hoped we’d find a small cafe. We were well ahead of time and didn’t want to arrive in Plampinet at midday. There was nothing there, so we pushed on and reached Pamplinet forty minutes later. It can best be described as a hamlet. It’s pretty and quaint and very isolated. Most of the roofs were either wooden or rusting wriggly tin. We were immediately lured into the nearest restaurant and had an excellent al fresco lunch. We don’t normally eat during the day, but for some reason we decided to treat ourselves – perhaps because we’ve now reached the half-way point in terms of distance.

We’ve only got one more day’s hiking tomorrow with Geoffrey to Briançon (27km) and then we lose him, sadly. He’s been a great hiking companion. Three will become two. But not for long.

At Briançon we are booked into the Hotel de Paris for three nights. We’ll have Sunday and Monday off. Then our final and fourth phase begins on Tuesday 28th. We walk on Tuesday and Wednesday to Ceillac where we meet up with Geoffrey and Phil and join them for Menton’s Gambol, the last 250kms of the GR5 and GR52. So, two will become four.

For Richard and me, this last phase will represent fifteen continuous days of walking. So, far we’ve had six days followed by a rest day in Les Houches, five days followed by a rest day in Val d’Isere, and seven days followed by two rest days in Briançon. It’ll be interesting to see how we cope with fifteen continuous days of walking having already completed two-thirds of the GR5.

The profile and nature of the mountains have changed quite dramatically. A week ago we were in the Haut Savoie amid the 3,000m+ peaks. Over the last week they’ve ‘shrunk’ somewhat and changed from granite to that more sandstone jagged terrain more associated with the Dolomites.

What we thought at the start of the GR5 would be a hellish week has actually been a lot of fun. The distances have all been manageable. They are not huge, but when you put mountains in the way they become quite challenging. It’ll be interesting to see what the southern half of the GR5 and GR52 will be like.

Stay tuned!

Vital Statistics:

Day 17: La Montana to Modane:

Day 18: La Modane to Refuge du Mont Thabor:

Day 19: Refuge du Mont Thabor to Plampinet: